CLEVELAND -- If Triston McKenzie has his invisible fastball, there’s not much that can stop him.
McKenzie doesn’t have an overpowering heater, as he ranks in the 32nd percentile in fastball velocity. Yet because he’s so tall and lanky, his four-seamer plays up. And when everything is going right, that pitch can sneak up on hitters so much that they deem it “invisible” when they’re trying to hit it.
With that offering in his back pocket in the Guardians’ 4-0 win over the Tigers on Thursday night at Progressive Field, McKenzie couldn’t help but cruise through eight scoreless frames.
As if his stat line of no walks, no runs, five hits and a career-high 12 strikeouts on a career-high 109 pitches didn’t explain his dominance enough, the Guardians got verbal reassurance that their starter was dealing when catcher Austin Hedges was standing on second base and Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop approached him.
“Schoop was at second base telling me he just had that invisible fastball,” Hedges said. “He's got that thing going. It's deceptive in so many different ways. We can really throw that whenever we want.”
When does McKenzie realize his fastball is working so well that it’s reached “invisible” level?
“From the bullpen,” McKenzie said, with a grin. “It felt really, really good today. My mechanics felt really, really good, but usually in the first inning once I see some swings, I’m able to get a gauge on how my stuff is going to work on a day.”
The numbers back up just how good McKenzie’s mechanics actually felt. His fastball maxed out at 95.6 mph and averaged 1.2 mph faster than it has all season. His curveball induced two more whiffs (10 total) than he’s ever had before. And his 18 whiffs on the night are the second most of his career, trailing another performance against the Tigers last season on Aug. 15 (21 whiffs).
"He had the slider going back door to lefties, in to them, away to righties,” Hedges said. “We gave guys different looks every at-bat. Nobody was able to really learn what he was doing, and they were all clutching."
When McKenzie’s fastball is on, all his other pitches can easily follow suit. How? His opponents explained Thursday night:
"You don't get many [fastballs] in the heart of the zone,” Tigers catcher Eric Haase said. “It's all up and he's got good life on it, and his breaking ball looks the exact same. So you're kind of having to pick one and go. … We just couldn't make the adjustment. Then when we did, he went to his breaking ball and ate us up with that. Just a good job pitching on his part."
"He was tough to me,” Tigers center fielder Riley Greene said. “He was going fastball up, trying to get my eye level, and then going curveball down. With him, I feel like his curveball comes out of the same spot as his fastball does, so it's kind of tricky. He throws it just like his fastball."
Although his outing was stellar, the way McKenzie has been pitching in July made his dominance a little less surprising. He’s now extended his scoreless innings streak to 21 frames, marking the longest stretch within a single season by a Cleveland hurler since Corey Kluber (26 straight frames) from Sept. 7-24, 2017, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“That's what I expect of him every time,” Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor said. “He's a phenomenal pitcher. … He’s having fun out there, but the last three outings have just been incredible. That Yankees outing really brought some great stuff out of him. I'm excited for the future for him.”
If there was any team McKenzie could face to close out the first half of his regular season and continue this hot stretch, it certainly didn’t hurt that it was the Tigers. Not only did he have the most whiffs in his career against them last season, his previous strikeout record (11) was set on that same date in Detroit last August. And after his eight sparkling frames on Thursday, he lowered his ERA against Detroit to a mere 0.93 (four earned runs, 38 2/3 innings).
"We've only got to him maybe once or twice over the last couple years,” Haase said. “He's had a lot of success against us. Obviously next time we see him, it's back to the drawing board and obviously try to make some adjustments, because the adjustments we're trying to make aren't working and he's one step ahead."